Major oil spill in the South Atlantic threatens Rockhopper Penguins

A major oil spill in the Atlantic Ocean could spell catastrophe for endangered Rockhopper Penguins.  The cargo freighter M.S. Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island in the remote Tristan de Cunha chain last week, spilling hundreds of tons of crude oil that has coated the birds and left them fighting for survival. Details are sketchy at this time but all 22 crewmembers were rescued before the ship broke in two.

A Rockhopper Penguin on Gough Island in the South Atlantic (photo: Chantal Steyn)

Known primarily for its vibrant wildlife populations, Tristan de Cunha is one of the most isolated places in the world—located 1,750 miles from South Africa and over 2,000 miles from South America.  With no airport and only a few hundred citizens, international conservation groups are scrambling to mount a relief effort for the penguins, but progress has been exasperatingly slow.

Only one rescue vessel with limited equipment has been deployed so far.  Jay Holcomb of the International Bird Rescue Research Center says that some 20,000 penguins have been affected and “many of the birds have been oiled for over a week, which limits their chances of survival.”  There is no fresh water on the most-affected island, meaning that the birds must be transported to the main island for cleaning.

Trevor Glass, a local conservation officer, painted a stark picture: “The scene at Nightingale is dreadful, as there is an oil slick encircling the island.”

Experts also warn that rats likely escaped the ship and could gain a foothold, a development that “would be devastating” according to Richard Cuthbert of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.


To learn more or make a donation to the International Bird Rescue Research Center, visit IBRRC’s website.

UPDATE: National Geographic has just posted a photo slideshow on its website.